The Wi-Fi Alliance bares its teeth

You could say the Wi-Fi Alliance has had an easy ride so far. In its five year history, it has seen a succession of IEEE 802.11 standards arrive, and it has certified over 1500 products which comply with them. Its job is to police the way the standards are implemented in products and promote the Wi-Fi market. And so far it has done that without a major industry fight, and without having to revoke any certificates.

But things may be about to change, according to the Alliance's managing director, Franz Hanzlik: "The stakes are higher, because the Wi-Fi opportunity is so large now." So far 802.11 networks have been a small part of the industry, but now vendors can smell big money.

"Manufacturers are looking at ways to differentiate their products from their competitors," says Hanzlik. "And one technique is using proprietary extensions. Vendors know they have to have Wi-Fi certification, but they have to do something on top of that to differentiate themselves." It's the Alliance's job to make sure that products comply with the standards, and work together, but the Alliance is made up of competing members who want to innovate beyond the standards.

That's the reason for the Alliance's recent announcement that its certification policy is to become "more robust". For the first time, simply complying with the standards is not enough. If a Wi-Fi certified product "impacts the ability of other Wi-Fi certified equipment to operate as intended" the Alliance may revoke its certificate.

It is only the second time the word "revoke" has appeared on the Alliance's site (Google tells us), and it sparked debate in the Wi-Fi community. Because "impacting the operation of other Wi-Fi certified equipment" is exactly what wireless chip maker Broadcom has been accusing rival Atheros of, for nearly a year now, since the launch of Atheros' Super G proprietary extensions to 802.11g. Was the Alliance about to wade in and sort it out?

Not exactly. As far as Hanzlik is concerned the Broadcom-Atheros spat is water under the bridge, a dispute between member companies. "We want a policy in place going forward," he says. The new policy is intended to set expectations for future standards that are coming out. "It's been received very well by the membership," he says. "It can be implemented, and it won't cause bottlenecks in the mainstream certification process."

The policy could be tested severely over the next couple of years. There are plenty of techniques out there in the market to make wireless LANs go faster than 54 Mbit/s, but the IEEE has only just begun work on 802.11n, the first official standard to go faster than 54 Mbit/s.

"It looks like IEEE 802.11n is a couple of years away from full ratification," says Hanzlik. "Good progress is being made, but it's a couple of years away." The standards group still has to settle finally on what band to use and what techniques to use, and in the meantime, those techniques are going to be deployed in the market - perhaps with a somewhat-misleading "802.11n pre-standard" label on them.

"By default, any company that brings out products before ratification would be implementing a proprietary pre-standard," says Hanzlik. "That will give you higher throughput, but you may only be able to use equipment from one manufacturer, and there will be no certification program for that higher speed capability."

So, we're likely to see some tough decisions: "Don't walk away with any impression that this is a paper only policy," he says. "We have a responsibility to exercise appropriate stewardship, and we fully expect to be able to apply that policy very effectively."

What the Alliance wants is for basic standards compliance to be clear, and for users to be able to make an informed choice about any extensions. "Customers will decide what solution is right for them," says Hanzlik. "If there is a proprietary extension that requires you to only have products that operate effectively in that mode, customers will have to make a decision."

Home users, who are only buying one access point, may make a different decision from enterprise users buying two thousand devices, he says. That is the situation with Super G, we suggest: home users only use one access point, so they don't mind how it interacts with other systems, while enterprise users have found they can't cover an office floor with access points if some of them are using channel bonding.

Home versus office
Will the Alliance have to respond to this growing divide between home and office Wi-Fi equipment? It already has, says Hanzlik. The WPA security brand for 802.11i is available in a Personal and an Enterprise version. The enterprise version assumes that authentication is done by a Radius server, something which is not available to a home user (see SOHO gear doesn't get WPA security).

The same thing will happen when the quality of service brand for WME - part of IEEE 802.11e - arrives in September. Once again, WME is something that is more likely to be used by enterprises for voice over WLAN.

But these divisions will be rare: "We want to be sensitive to the issue of breaking up the brand," he says. "The reason the Alliance has been so successful is there really is one brand. We are only going to make exceptions where they make market sense." Fast roaming, the forthcoming IEEE 802.11r standard, will be another one: home users with one access point won't be doing a lot of roaming.

Multiple standards
The existence of multiple Wi-Fi standards on different bands could have been a problem dividing the brand, but a recently-introduced refinement to the Wi-Fi logo should sort that out. "It's a very simplified logo, with colour coded circles," says Hanzlik. "Consumers can pull products off the shelf, according to which standards they support." Enterprise users can dig deeper with a detailed certificate which can be cited in a request for proposals. This specifies which standards are supported and which options and additional functions are included.

There isn't much prospect of the Alliance sorting out the issue of the mismatch between the theoretical link speed and the actual throughput of a Wi-Fi device, which means that consumers pay for a device claiming 54 Mbit/s or even 108 Mbit/s (link speed) and get one that does something less than 30 Mbit/s (throughput).

Unfortunately, to get realistic throughput figures on product boxes would require a third party body that measures performance, and the Alliance just measures conformance. "We don't have any programmes that are looking at this," says Hanzlik, pointing out that under trade description rules, manufacturers should have an asterisk explaining details of their claims.

Where next for the Alliance?
Although most people just see the Alliance through the Wi-Fi brand, it actually has three roles, says Hanzlik: "One thing we do is the technical area, including certification and the interoperability programme. We also have a marketing role, which benefits all the members. We are able to see where the industry is going, and have a role discussing and educating where the standards are going.

The third role is in the regulatory area: "We work with regulatory agencies around the world, making sure that spectrum and other issues are evolving in a way that will help the industry." The Wi-Fi Alliance was very involved in the harmonisation process that made it legal to to use 802.11a in Europe.

On the subject of 802.11a, he agrees that there is an upsurge in the 5GHz Wi-Fi standard. "We see growth in a/g solutions, as opposed to a only products. They seem to be an increasing percentage of products. You get the best of both worlds."

The Alliance is launching two branding programmes in September, for WPA 2 - the second phase of its 802.11i branding (see How will we get to 802.1i?) - and for WME, the first available part of the IEEE 802.11e QoS standard. Just as with WPA, the WME certification (the Wi-Fi Alliance's name for it is not yet announced) will be the first of a two-part certification scheme.

"QoS is an enabler," says Hanzlik. "There is a tremendous amount of interest in it - QoS is our biggest task group."

Beyond that, the Alliance will work on any aspect of Wi-Fi, for instance the convergence with cellular will require some kind of branding: "We have been working very closely with some cellular organisations for some time, on finding the requirements for the evolution of Wi-Fi products," says Hanzlik. The work will cover requirements for access points, and billing related issues.

"Wi-Fi certification is more important than ever before," says Hanzlik, "with the advent of new technologies such as QoS and security. We want to make sure enterprises and consumers get a positive experience."

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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